G-d: A Sampling of Texts

“If I knew G-d, I would be G-d” - Rabbi Joseph Albo

Rabbi Joseph Albo was a 15th century theologian in Spain. His most famous work is "Sefer HaIkarim", which tries to define the fundamentals of Judaism. This saying encapsulates the challenges of defining the undefinable Lord.

Foundational Texts

(ד) שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃
(4) Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.

This text from the Biblical Book of Deuteronomy states that G-d is one -- not 3, not many, just 1. It is the most important prayer in Judaism because it separates us from most other religions in the world. While Judaism is focused more on action than on belief, this helps to define the boundaries of belief - G-d is less than or equal to 1. Also, this prayer is good for reminding us that it is important to listen fully to somebody - give them your undivided attention, even when that's hard (and rare) these days.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

(ב) אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃ (ג) לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ (ד) לֹֽ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֥֣ פֶ֣֙סֶל֙ ׀ וְכָל־תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה אֲשֶׁ֤֣ר בַּשָּׁמַ֣֙יִם֙ ׀ מִמַּ֡֔עַל וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר֩ בָּאָ֖֨רֶץ מִתַָּ֑֜חַת וַאֲשֶׁ֥֣ר בַּמַּ֖֣יִם ׀ מִתַּ֥֣חַת לָאָֽ֗רֶץ (ה) לֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּחְוֶ֥֣ה לָהֶ֖ם֮ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒ כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֺ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽ֑י׃ (ו) וְעֹ֥֤שֶׂה חֶ֖֙סֶד֙ לַאֲלָפִ֑֔ים לְאֹהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹׁמְרֵ֥י מִצְוֺתָֽי׃ (ס)
(2) I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: (3) You shall have no other gods besides Me. (4) You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. (5) You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, (6) but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.

This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, from the Ten Commandments. The first line isn't technically a commandment, which is why in Hebrew these are called "The Ten Utterances". It makes the claim that G-d took us out of slavery in Egypt, which is implied to be the reason why we should follow the rest of the rules. The second commandment says that we shouldn't pray to other gods, and that we can't create images of G-d -- this suggest a limit on G-d in some way.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

Two Ways of Relating to G-d

(א) אֲדון עולָם אֲשֶׁר מָלַךְ. בְּטֶרֶם כָּל יְצִיר נִבְרָא:

(ב) לְעֵת נַעֲשָׂה בְחֶפְצו כּל. אֲזַי מֶלֶךְ שְׁמו נִקְרָא:

(ג) וְאַחֲרֵי כִּכְלות הַכּל. לְבַדּו יִמְלךְ נורָא:

(ד) וְהוּא הָיָה. וְהוּא הוֶה. וְהוּא יִהְיֶה בְּתִפְאָרָה:

(ה) וְהוּא אֶחָד וְאֵין שֵׁנִי. לְהַמְשִׁיל לו לְהַחְבִּירָה:

(ו) בְּלִי רֵאשִׁית בְּלִי תַכְלִית. וְלו הָעז וְהַמִּשְׂרָה:

(ז) וְהוּא אֵלִי וְחַי גואֲלִי. וְצוּר חֶבְלִי בְּעֵת צָרָה:

(ח) וְהוּא נִסִּי וּמָנוס לִי. מְנָת כּוסִי בְּיום אֶקְרָא:

(ט) בְּיָדו אַפְקִיד רוּחִי. בְּעֵת אִישָׁן וְאָעִירָה:

(י) וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי. ה' לִי וְלא אִירָא:

(1) The ruler of the universe, who ruled before any creature was created.

(2) At the time they were made, all was according to G-d’s will, and then G-d’s name was called "Ruler".

(3) And after everything was finished, G-d alone ruled, awe-inspiring.

(4) G-d was, G-d is, and G-d will be with splendor.

(5) And, G-d was first, with no second, to rule over G-d or to collaborate;

(6) with no beginning and no end, G-d has the strength and the right.

(7) And the Lord is my G-d, my redeemer is alive; the rock who sustains me in a distressful day.

(8) And G-d is my banner and refuge, the portion of my cup on the day I call out.

(9) In G-d’s hand, I safeguard my spirit, [for] when I sleep, [I know that] I will wake.

(10) And with my spirit is my body; G-d is for me, and I will not be afraid.

Adon Olam is a prayer that is found at the beginning of all morning services, but it is most often sung at the end of Shabbat and Festival morning services. It makes the claim that there are 2 ways of experiencing G-d - far-away and transcendent (lines 1-6), and nearby and imminent (lines 7-10).

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

(מו) אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ חָנֵּֽנוּ וַעֲנֵֽנוּ כִּי אֵין בָּֽנוּ מַעֲשִׂים עֲשֵׂה עִמָּֽנוּ צְדָקָה וָחֶֽסֶד וְהוֹשִׁיעֵֽנוּ:

(46) Our Parent, our Sovereign! favor us and answer us for we have no accomplishments; deal with us charitably and kindly and deliver us.

Avinu Malkeinu is sung on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (as well as on other fast days). The first two words talk about the two ways we relate to G-d -- a parent (close) and a sovereign (distant). These are similar to the two aspects of G-d we focus on during the High Holidays - G-d's justice and G-d's mercy (considered G-d's male and female side respectively). The female side of G-d is sometimes called the Shechinah (the Divine Presence).

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

How Much Does G-d Do, and How Much Do We Do?

(ג) בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל שַׁבָּת:

(3) Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with the Lord's commandments and commanded us to light the Shabbat candle.

This is the blessing we say for lighting Shabbat candles. It has the phrase "asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu", ("who has sanctified us with the Lord's commandments and commanded us"), which is added to all blessings over things we do. Some of these blessings are for things we are commanded to do in the Torah (like sitting in a sukkah), and some of them are for things which came after the Torah (like lighting Chanukah candles). We still say that we are commanded to do these things because of Deut. 17:11, which the rabbis interpreted as meaning we should do what they say and it will be like G-d told us to do those things. A point about G-d being made in this blessing is that G-d gives us ways of living a better life.

Note that while the first word of the blessing has the root ב.ר.כ., meaning "bless", some people translate it in this situation as "praised" on grounds that G-d has everything and can't be blessed.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָּפֶן.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

This is the blessing for grape juice and wine. It doesn't have the "asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu" phrase because it is a praising/thanking blessing, not a "doing" blessing. This blessing is an acknowledgement that unlike the creation of fake grapes, growing real grapes involves factors outside of human control. Because Jews don't have a different god for rain vs. sun vs. the earth, all compliments (and complaints) get addressed to G-d.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the ground.

This is the blessing over bread. It gives G-d credit for bringing forth bread from the earth, but G-d doesn't actually do that. Instead, G-d helps the wheat to grow and gives us the ingenuity to turn wheat into bread. We are G-d's partners in improving creation. As Eleanor Powell said, our talents are G-d's gift to us, and what we do with them is our gift to G-d.

Other examples of people partnering with G-d: G-d wanted the Israelites freed from Egypt, but Moses and Aaron had to talk to Pharaoh. G-d wants no chametz on Pesach, but people have to get rid of it. G-d wants the poor, widowed, orphaned, and foreigners among us to be taken care of, and people have to do it. G-d provides the vision, and people provide the execution. By doing things in partnership, our relationship with G-d is stronger.

The Rabbis in the Talmud also talk about this idea. They noticed that in the story of Creation, when it says that G-d finished creating on Shabbat, the Torah uses the word “vayechulu”, meaning the heavens and the earth “were finished” (Gen. 2:1). However, by changing the vowels, the same word could be read “vayechalu”, meaning “they finished”. Rava interpreted this to mean that we partner with G-d to finish Creation. (Shabbat 119b:2).

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

Wrestling with G-d

(כה) וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃ (כו) וַיַּ֗רְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָכֹל֙ ל֔וֹ וַיִּגַּ֖ע בְּכַף־יְרֵכ֑וֹ וַתֵּ֙קַע֙ כַּף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּהֵֽאָבְק֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ׃ (כז) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שַׁלְּחֵ֔נִי כִּ֥י עָלָ֖ה הַשָּׁ֑חַר וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֲשַֽׁלֵּחֲךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּֽנִי׃ (כח) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו מַה־שְּׁמֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹֽב׃ (כט) וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃ (ל) וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֗ב וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹת֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃
(25) Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. (26) When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. (27) Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” (28) Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” (29) Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (30) Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there.

This is from the Biblical Book of Genesis. Jacob had tricked his brother Esau out of Esau's birthright and blessing 20 years prior to this text, and now that Jacob was coming home Esau was coming to meet him with 400 of Esau's closest friends. The night before they meet, Jacob sends his family across a stream in case Esau tries a night attack, and Jacob wrestles all night. It is unclear if Jacob is wrestling with Esau (doesn't explain why the name change involves wrestling with a divine being) or with Jacob's own conscience (doesn't explain why he sustains a physical hip injury) or with an angel (Esau's guardian angel or some other angel). The key point is that Jacob's name changes to Israel, "the G-d-wrestler". As descendants of Jacob/Israel, we get to wrestle with G-d and that's OK.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

(יז) וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃ (יח) וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (יט) כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃ (כ) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה זַעֲקַ֛ת סְדֹ֥ם וַעֲמֹרָ֖ה כִּי־רָ֑בָּה וְחַ֨טָּאתָ֔ם כִּ֥י כָבְדָ֖ה מְאֹֽד׃ (כא) אֵֽרֲדָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָ֛הּ הַבָּ֥אָה אֵלַ֖י עָשׂ֣וּ ׀ כָּלָ֑ה וְאִם־לֹ֖א אֵדָֽעָה׃ (כב) וַיִּפְנ֤וּ מִשָּׁם֙ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים וַיֵּלְכ֖וּ סְדֹ֑מָה וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם עוֹדֶ֥נּוּ עֹמֵ֖ד לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ (כג) וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע׃ (כד) אוּלַ֥י יֵ֛שׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים צַדִּיקִ֖ם בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעִ֑יר הַאַ֤ף תִּסְפֶּה֙ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֣א לַמָּק֔וֹם לְמַ֛עַן חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים הַצַּדִּיקִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבָּֽהּ׃ (כה) חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵעֲשֹׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט׃ (כו) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה אִם־אֶמְצָ֥א בִסְדֹ֛ם חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים צַדִּיקִ֖ם בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעִ֑יר וְנָשָׂ֥אתִי לְכָל־הַמָּק֖וֹם בַּעֲבוּרָֽם׃ (כז) וַיַּ֥עַן אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הִנֵּה־נָ֤א הוֹאַ֙לְתִּי֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר׃ (כח) א֠וּלַי יַחְסְר֞וּן חֲמִשִּׁ֤ים הַצַּדִּיקִם֙ חֲמִשָּׁ֔ה הֲתַשְׁחִ֥ית בַּחֲמִשָּׁ֖ה אֶת־כָּל־הָעִ֑יר וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אַשְׁחִ֔ית אִם־אֶמְצָ֣א שָׁ֔ם אַרְבָּעִ֖ים וַחֲמִשָּֽׁה׃ (כט) וַיֹּ֨סֶף ע֜וֹד לְדַבֵּ֤ר אֵלָיו֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר אוּלַ֛י יִמָּצְא֥וּן שָׁ֖ם אַרְבָּעִ֑ים וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֔ה בַּעֲב֖וּר הָאַרְבָּעִֽים׃ (ל) וַ֠יֹּאמֶר אַל־נָ֞א יִ֤חַר לַֽאדֹנָי֙ וַאֲדַבֵּ֔רָה אוּלַ֛י יִמָּצְא֥וּן שָׁ֖ם שְׁלֹשִׁ֑ים וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֔ה אִם־אֶמְצָ֥א שָׁ֖ם שְׁלֹשִֽׁים׃ (לא) וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִנֵּֽה־נָ֤א הוֹאַ֙לְתִּי֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֔י אוּלַ֛י יִמָּצְא֥וּן שָׁ֖ם עֶשְׂרִ֑ים וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אַשְׁחִ֔ית בַּעֲב֖וּר הָֽעֶשְׂרִֽים׃ (לב) וַ֠יֹּאמֶר אַל־נָ֞א יִ֤חַר לַֽאדֹנָי֙ וַאֲדַבְּרָ֣ה אַךְ־הַפַּ֔עַם אוּלַ֛י יִמָּצְא֥וּן שָׁ֖ם עֲשָׂרָ֑ה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אַשְׁחִ֔ית בַּעֲב֖וּר הָעֲשָׂרָֽה׃ (לג) וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר כִּלָּ֔ה לְדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וְאַבְרָהָ֖ם שָׁ֥ב לִמְקֹמֽוֹ׃

(17) Now the LORD had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, (18) since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? (19) For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what G-d has promised him.” (20) Then the LORD said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! (21) I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” (22) The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. (23) Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? (24) What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? (25) Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (26) And the LORD answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” (27) Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: (28) What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And G-d answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.” (29) But he spoke to G-d again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?” And G-d answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.” (30) And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?” And G-d answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” (31) And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?” And G-d answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.” (32) And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And G-d answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.” (33) When the LORD had finished speaking to Abraham, G-d departed; and Abraham returned to his place.

This is from the Biblical Book of Genesis, where G-d tells Abraham that G-d is going to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham has the chutzpah, the gall, to argue with G-d and say that G-d is making a mistake. After G-d agrees to not destroy the cities if 50 good people are found there, Abraham has the further chutzpah to keep arguing G-d down. As the descendants of Abraham, we get to tell G-d when we think G-d is wrong, though G-d may not respond.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

Covenant with G-d

(ג) וּמֹשֶׁ֥ה עָלָ֖ה אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו יְהוָה֙ מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ד) אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי׃ (ה) וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (ו) וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
(3) and Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: (4) ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. (5) Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, (6) but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, right before G-d reveals the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. Here we have the covenant of G-d with the Jewish people. Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of the Jews as the Chosen People, though it does not imply superiority but rather distinct responsibilities that anybody else is welcome to join us in sharing. This text suggests that the Jewish people have a relationship with G-d; many modern thinkers suggest that each people can have a special relationship with G-d if they so choose, just like a parent can have a treasured relationship with more than 1 child.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

What Do We Know About G-d?

(א) יִגְדַּל אֱלהִים חַי וְיִשְׁתַּבַּח, נִמְצָא וְאֵין עֵת אֶל מְצִיאוּתו. אֶחָד וְאֵין יָחִיד כְּיִחוּדו, נֶעְלָם וְגַם אֵין סוף לְאַחְדוּתו. אֵין לו דְמוּת הַגּוּף וְאֵינו גוּף, לא נַעֲרךְ אֵלָיו קְדֻשָּׁתו. קַדְמון לְכָל דָּבָר אֲשֶׁר נִבְרָא, רִאשׁון וְאֵין רֵאשִׁית לְרֵאשִׁיתו. הִנּו אֲדון עולָם לְכָל נוצָר, יורֶה גְדֻלָּתו וּמַלְכוּתו. שֶׁפַע נְבוּאָתו נְתָנו, אֶל אַנְשֵׁי סְגֻלָּתו וְתִפְאַרְתּו. לא קָם בְּיִשרָאֵל כְּמשֶׁה עוד, נָבִיא וּמַבִּיט אֶת תְּמוּנָתו. תּורַת אֱמֶת נָתַן לְעַמּו אֵל, עַל יַד נְבִיאו נֶאֱמַן בֵּיתו. לא יַחֲלִיף הָאֵל וְלא יָמִיר דָּתו, לְעולָמִים לְזוּלָתו. צופֶה וְיודֵעַ סְתָרֵינוּ, מַבִּיט לְסוף דָּבָר בְְַּקַדְמָתו. גּומֵל לְאִישׁ חֶסֶד כְּמִפְעָלו, נותֵן לְרָשָׁע רַע כְּרִשְׁעָתו. יִשְׁלַח לְקֵץ הַיָּמִין מְשִׁיחֵנוּ, לִפְדּות מְחַכֵּי קֵץ יְשׁוּעָתו. מֵתִים יְחַיֶּה אֵל בְּרב חַסְדּו, בָּרוּךְ עֲדֵי עַד שֵׁם תְּהִלָּתו:

  1. Glorify and praise the living God, who exists, but not in time—
  2. Singular and unique, hidden and unbounded,
  3. Having no body, not a physical being: we cannot describe God’s distinctness.
  4. God existed before every thing; first of all—but with no beginning.
  5. This is the Master of the world; all of creation points to God’s greatness and sovereignty.
  6. Prophetic inspiration was bestowed upon the people God treasured and honored.
  7. There never arose in Israel another like Moses, a prophet able to see the very likeness of the Divine.
  8. By the hand of this prophet, trusted in God’s house, Torah, a truthful teaching, was given to God’s people.
  9. God will never alter the divine law, nor change it for another.
  10. God knows our innermost thoughts, and foresees their consequences from the start.
  11. God repays the righteous for their deeds; punishes evildoers in accord with their transgressions.
  12. The Divine will send us our Messiah at the end of days, redeeming those who wait for the time of God’s triumph.
  13. God, with great mercy, will give life to the dead—may God’s name be praised forever.

Rambam/Maimonides (1135-1204, a little less than half an hour) created these Thirteen Principles of Faith, which Rabbi Daniel bar Judah turned into Yigdal in the 1300s based on Immanuel of Rome’s efforts earlier. This form of the principles is sung at the end of Friday evening services, as well as appearing at the beginning of weekday morning services (as a prayer it is called “Yigdal” because that’s the first word). These principles try to encapsulate some ideas about G-d. Some people have trouble with the idea of G-d bringing people back to life when the Messiah comes; this can also be understood as people living on in the memories of others, or the trees coming back to life after they appear dead in the winter.

Which of these ways of thinking about G-d work for you?

(ו) וַיַּעֲבֹ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה ׀ עַל־פָּנָיו֮ וַיִּקְרָא֒ יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ (ז) נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

(6) The LORD passed before him and proclaimed: “The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, (7) extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus. After the Golden Calf incident, Moses needed some more support from G-d while receiving the second set of the Ten Commandments. Moses stood in the cleft of a rock and hid his face while G-d passed before him. Moses only saw G-d's "back" (the Bible uses anthropomorphisms to describe G-d, but since G-d has no body this simply is to help humans understand G-d), and then G-d describes G-d's-self with these terms. When these are said on Yom Kippur and in the Festival Torah Service the verse cuts off before "visiting the iniquity...". Also, while it is true that the actions of one generation affect the next generation (think climate change), the rabbis noticed that in Deuteronomy 24:16 children weren’t to be put to death for the mistakes of their parents so in the Talmud the rabbis said that children only get punished if they act like their parents (Sanhedrin 27b:14-18).

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

Where Do We Find G-d?

(יז) וַיּוֹצֵ֨א מֹשֶׁ֧ה אֶת־הָעָ֛ם לִקְרַ֥את הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה וַיִּֽתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּתַחְתִּ֥ית הָהָֽר׃ (יח) וְהַ֤ר סִינַי֙ עָשַׁ֣ן כֻּלּ֔וֹ מִ֠פְּנֵי אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרַ֥ד עָלָ֛יו יְהוָ֖ה בָּאֵ֑שׁ וַיַּ֤עַל עֲשָׁנוֹ֙ כְּעֶ֣שֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁ֔ן וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כָּל־הָהָ֖ר מְאֹֽד׃ (יט) וַיְהִי֙ ק֣וֹל הַשּׁוֹפָ֔ר הוֹלֵ֖ךְ וְחָזֵ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד מֹשֶׁ֣ה יְדַבֵּ֔ר וְהָאֱלֹהִ֖ים יַעֲנֶ֥נּוּ בְקֽוֹל׃
(17) Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. (18) Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the LORD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. (19) The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.

This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, right before the giving of the Ten Commandments. Sometimes G-d is found / experienced in the big flashy moments.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

(ט) וַיָּבֹא־שָׁ֥ם אֶל־הַמְּעָרָ֖ה וַיָּ֣לֶן שָׁ֑ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה דְבַר־יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ מַה־לְּךָ֥ פֹ֖ה אֵלִיָּֽהוּ׃ (י) וַיֹּאמֶר֩ קַנֹּ֨א קִנֵּ֜אתִי לַיהוָ֣ה ׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י צְבָא֗וֹת כִּֽי־עָזְב֤וּ בְרִֽיתְךָ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתֶ֣יךָ הָרָ֔סוּ וְאֶת־נְבִיאֶ֖יךָ הָרְג֣וּ בֶחָ֑רֶב וָֽאִוָּתֵ֤ר אֲנִי֙ לְבַדִּ֔י וַיְבַקְשׁ֥וּ אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י לְקַחְתָּֽהּ׃ (יא) וַיֹּ֗אמֶר צֵ֣א וְעָמַדְתָּ֣ בָהָר֮ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָה֒ וְהִנֵּ֧ה יְהוָ֣ה עֹבֵ֗ר וְר֣וּחַ גְּדוֹלָ֡ה וְחָזָ֞ק מְפָרֵק֩ הָרִ֨ים וּמְשַׁבֵּ֤ר סְלָעִים֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לֹ֥א בָר֖וּחַ יְהוָ֑ה וְאַחַ֤ר הָר֨וּחַ רַ֔עַשׁ לֹ֥א בָרַ֖עַשׁ יְהוָֽה׃ (יב) וְאַחַ֤ר הָרַ֙עַשׁ֙ אֵ֔שׁ לֹ֥א בָאֵ֖שׁ יְהוָ֑ה וְאַחַ֣ר הָאֵ֔שׁ ק֖וֹל דְּמָמָ֥ה דַקָּֽה׃ (יג) וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כִּשְׁמֹ֣עַ אֵלִיָּ֗הוּ וַיָּ֤לֶט פָּנָיו֙ בְּאַדַּרְתּ֔וֹ וַיֵּצֵ֕א וַֽיַּעֲמֹ֖ד פֶּ֣תַח הַמְּעָרָ֑ה וְהִנֵּ֤ה אֵלָיו֙ ק֔וֹל וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מַה־לְּךָ֥ פֹ֖ה אֵלִיָּֽהוּ׃ (יד) וַיֹּאמֶר֩ קַנֹּ֨א קִנֵּ֜אתִי לַיהוָ֣ה ׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י צְבָא֗וֹת כִּֽי־עָזְב֤וּ בְרִֽיתְךָ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתֶ֣יךָ הָרָ֔סוּ וְאֶת־נְבִיאֶ֖יךָ הָרְג֣וּ בֶחָ֑רֶב וָאִוָּתֵ֤ר אֲנִי֙ לְבַדִּ֔י וַיְבַקְשׁ֥וּ אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י לְקַחְתָּֽהּ׃ (ס)

(9) There he went into a cave, and there he spent the night. Then the word of the LORD came to him. He said to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” (10) He replied, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” (11) “Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. (12) After the earthquake—fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a still soft voice. (13) When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?” (14) He answered, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and have put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.”

This is from the Biblical Book of First Kings. Elijah had convinced the Israelites that the priests of Ba'al weren't priests of a real god, and their sponsor Queen Jezebel put a price on his head. Elijah went into the wilderness and needed some more support from G-d. This text shows that sometimes G-d is found / experienced in the quiet moments, like listening to our conscience.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

G-d Acts Through Nature

(כא) וַיֵּ֨ט מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶת־יָדוֹ֮ עַל־הַיָּם֒ וַיּ֣וֹלֶךְ יְהוָ֣ה ׀ אֶת־הַ֠יָּם בְּר֨וּחַ קָדִ֤ים עַזָּה֙ כָּל־הַלַּ֔יְלָה וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֶת־הַיָּ֖ם לֶחָרָבָ֑ה וַיִּבָּקְע֖וּ הַמָּֽיִם׃ (כב) וַיָּבֹ֧אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בְּת֥וֹךְ הַיָּ֖ם בַּיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה וְהַמַּ֤יִם לָהֶם֙ חֹמָ֔ה מִֽימִינָ֖ם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָֽם׃
(21) Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the LORD drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, (22) and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, when the Israelites are trapped at the Sea of Reeds. Moses holds up his staff, but the waters don't instantly part. Rather, they part through the action of a wind which blows all night. Similar to the Ten Plagues, which also could have taken place through natural occurrences (starting with red algae), G-d is acting through nature here.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

(ז) בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ‑יָ אֱ‑לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, עוֹשֹה מַעֲשֹה בְּרֵאשִׁית:

Praised are You, Lord our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, who makes the makings of Creation.

This is a blessing for big things in nature - seeing a sunset, mountains, one of the Great Lakes, etc. It makes the case that G-d is present in nature. There's also a different blessing for individual beautiful things like a specific flower or animal.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

G-d Acts Through People

(ב) לחנוכה ולפורים
עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

(2) On Chanukah and Purim add:
We thank You also for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds and saving acts You wrought, as well as for the wars which You waged for our ancestors in days of old, at this season.

(ד) לפורים—בִּימֵי מָרְדְּכַי וְאֶסְתֵּר בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה כְּשֶׁעָמַד עֲלֵיהֶם הָמָן הָרָשָׁע בִּקֵּשׁ לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרוֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת־כָּל־הַיְּהוּדִים מִנַּעַר וְעַד זָקֵן טַף וְנָשִׁים בְּיוֹם אֶחָד בִּשְׁלֹשָׁה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר הוּא חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר וּשְׁלָלָם לָבוֹז וְאַתָּה בְּרַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים הֵפַרְתָּ אֶת עֲצָתוֹ וְקִלְקַלְתָּ אֶת מַחֲשַׁבְתּוֹ וַהֲשֵׁבוֹתָ־לוֹ גְמוּלוֹ בְרֹאשׁוֹ וְתָלוּ אוֹתוֹ וְאֶת בָּנָיו עַל הָעֵץ וְעָשִׂיתָ עִמָּהֶם נִסִּים וְנִפְלָאוֹת וְנוֹדֶה לְשִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל סֶלָה.

(4) On Purim—In the days of Mordecai and Esther, in Shushan the capital, when the wicked Haman rose up against them, and sought to destroy, to slay and make to perish all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women, on one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey,—then in Your abundant mercy you brought his counsel to nought, frustrated his design, and returned his recompense upon his own head; and they hanged him and his sons upon the gallows. For all these things Your name, O our Ruler, shall be continually blessed and exalted for ever and ever.

"Al Hanissim" is an extra paragraph added to the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon on Purim (and Chanukah, and Yom HaAtzmaut). It gives credit to G-d for saving the Jews of Persia from Haman. Yet G-d is never explicitly mentioned in the Book of Esther! This prayer makes the case that G-d acts through people. Where was G-d during the Holocaust? One answer is that G-d was acting through the people who tried to make a difference.

One more way that the Rabbis make this point is that the story of Esther only starts to change when she invites the king and Haman to the first feast. The Rabbis noticed that the phrase “yavo hamelech v’Haman hayom” (the king and Haman should come today) is an acronym for G-d’s 4-letter name. Therefore, they deduced that G-d was present when Esther took action (kippah tip to Rabbi Michael Siegel).

Another story that gets at this point is that there is a flood and a very pious man is sure that G-d is going to rescue him. He turns down people with a rowboat, a canoe, and even a helicopter, and eventually he drowns. Upon arriving in the afterlife, his soul asks G-d why G-d didn't rescue him, and G-d responds, "Who do you think sent you the people with the rowboat, canoe, and helicopter?"

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

Why Does G-d Allow Evil?

(טו) הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה, וּבְטוֹב הָעוֹלָם נִדּוֹן. וְהַכֹּל לְפִי רֹב הַמַּעֲשֶׂה:

(15) Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted; and the world is judged with goodness; and everything is in accordance with the preponderance of works.

This text is from Pirkei Avot, a Talmudic collection of quotes from the rabbis who lived between 200 BCE and 200 CE. Rabbi Akiba brings up the idea of free will - G-d has given us free will as part of the rules of the universe which G-d set up. G-d is a cheerleader for us to make good decisions (and some define G-d as "the force for good in the world"), and G-d is sad when we don't make good decisions. The rabbis depicted G-d as crying and going into exile when the Second Temple was destroyed. Only through free will, though, can we be held responsible for our actions.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

How Do We Bring G-d Into Our Lives?

(ג) בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְמַן הַזֶּה:

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and brought us to this time.

The Shehechiyanu blessing is one which we say any time we do something for the first time, or for the first time in a year, or when we reach a milestone worth marking. It's a way of bringing holiness into moments, recognizing that we didn't reach a certain point by our own actions solely, but rather through the aid of others (including G-d). Saying this blessing is a way of marking how special moments are also. One of the Big Ideas in Judaism is having an attitude of gratitude, and saying this blessing keeps us grateful that we made it to whatever moment we are marking.

Does this way of thinking about G-d work for you?

There are many names for G-d in the Jewish tradition (the Kitzur Baal HaTurim on Numbers 11:16 lists 70). These are some of them.

Which ones most appeal to you?